J Trace Elem Med Biol. 1998 Nov; 12(3): 129-40.
Walther-Straub-Institut für Pharmakologie und Toxikologie der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, München.
Iron deficiency affects approx. 20% of the world population. Due to predominantly vegetarian diets that reduce the bioavailability of food iron drastically, deficiency states are most widely distributed in developing countries. In addition, iron demand is increased by blood losses and by fast growth which increases the risk of iron deficiency in infants, young adolescents, and in menstruating and pregnant women. The symptoms of iron deficiency include impaired physical and intellectual performance. Iron supplementation may help to break the vicious cycle between inadequate nutrition and poverty. Fortification programs have to consider social and health aspects, including provision against iron overload. Excess iron stores may promote cancer and increase the cardiovascular risk, though the latter is a subject of current debate. The best approach to control such risks is individual iron supplementation geared to the demand by adequate laboratory controls. However, this approach is too costly for general application in developing countries. Food-iron fortification has successfully reduced iron deficiency in many trials and, in comparison, is much cheaper. As iron deficiency is widely distributed in most developing countries, the risk of inducing iron overload in the general population is low. Genetically determined diseases that may lead to siderosis, such as hereditary haemochromatosis or thalassaemia major, show a limited geographic and ethnic distribution. Such subgroups can be largely avoided by targeting food-iron fortification to infants, young adolescents, or pregnant women. Food vehicle and iron compound have to be matched in order to optimise iron bioavailability and to avoid rancidity in food, spoiling its taste and odour. The fortification of salt, sugar and spice mixtures or of bakery products with a short shelf-life are valid approaches to this end. Alternatively, haem iron can be used to fortify cereal-based food staples in developing countries such as tortillas or chappaties. Thus, a variety of options is available to solve the technical problems of food iron fortification. However, optimal solutions have to be tailored to the individual situation in each country.